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Friday, May 24, 2024

How to Get the Most Out of (or Into) Your Robot Vacuum

In the past few years, no other gadget—headphones, electric bicycle, literally anything at all—has improved as dramatically as the humble robot vacuum. The hardware and software have improved beyond all imagining. There are self-emptying bins, multilevel mapping, and all sorts of bells and whistles, like air fresheners! And prices on the entry-level models have dropped significantly, to the point where robot vacuums are now an accessible, convenient household tool instead of a statement of bougie affluence or a potential cat car.

And yes, we know that robot vacuums aren't perfect. But it's a device that goes into the darkest, murkiest corners of our houses on a regular basis. Let's retain a little grace for the little robot that does what we don't ever want to do. If you're worried you're at risk of becoming the next Roomba “pooptastrophe,” here are a few tips that can help you get the most out of your new sidekick. Have trouble making up your mind? Don't forget to check out our guide to the Best Robot Vacuums.

Updated March 2023: We added more information to each of our tips and updated the robot vacuum models. 

Decide Which Vacuum You Want

The hardest part of writing a robot vacuum roundup is deciding which vacuum is the best one. All of us have different houses, lifestyles, and desires. A single person or a couple in a 2-bedroom apartment without kids and with hardwood floors would probably be fine with a barebones model. A family of five living in a two-floored single family home with multiple floor surfaces, with small children and several pets, would probably need a much higher-end model (and all the help they can get).

For over a year now, the Roborock Q5+ (9/10, WIRED Recommends) has been the most reliable model in my four-person, 1200-square-foot house with carpets, hardwood floors, a dog, and about 6 million Legos. I've found Roborock's mapping capabilities to be capable; it very rarely gets stuck and requires the least maintenance of every robot vacuum I've tried. If you'd like the option to mop your hardwood floors, simpler is better. While the iRobot Roomba Combo j7+ has a very nifty robot arm, I'm currently testing Ecovacs' Deebot T9+, which lets you switch out the mop pad with every use (and skip the handwashing with reusable pads). 

However, the robot that you want might not be the one your friends want. I know another parent who prefers a simple bounce robot vacuum because she only runs it for 20 minutes after dinner in the kitchen. Have clear expectations of what you want your robot vacuum to do, with one important caveat below.

Don't Get a Robot With a Camera

Robot vacuums use a number of different sensors to navigate around your home. For example, some of the more advanced models use lidar, or self-generated lasers, to navigate; others use stereoscopic cameras. These are usually combined with simple bumper sensors to tell them when they've run into something, and infrared cliff sensors that let them know when they're about to fall off a step.

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Probably the most well-known navigation system is iRobot OS, which uses cameras to identify obstacles, navigate around your home, and create personalized cleaning routines. However, it's important to note here that the software itself isn't identifying obstacles. Companies still use humans to train the AI in their software. If letting strangers look at images from a camera in a robot that can be remotely controlled and navigated around the interior of your home seems like a bad idea … yes, it seems like a bad idea to us, too. 

Companies like Ecovacs promote an onboard camera as a home walkie-talkie, and make sure to include the relevant third-party safety certifications. Nevertheless, the risks do not seem worth it. I would prefer there to be no pictures of my butt to protect in the first place. 

Happily, many companies still use lidar and other navigation systems. So far, I've found that laser mapping is still relatively fast and accurate even when compared to stereoscopic mapping. Check the navigation system before you buy; for example, despite the name, Shark's AI Ultra (8/10, WIRED Recommends) worked very well and doesn't have an onboard camera. 

Do a Mapping Run

You get a robot vacuum to save time, so why can't you just unbox it and turn it on? One of the reasons I like using a robot vacuum is because it teaches me to clean my house, too. It takes time for both you and the robot vacuum to learn what the potential booby traps in your house will be for the roving machine. 

If you have elected for a robot vacuum with mapping capabilities, it usually gives you the option of a quick mapping run without cleaning. It might seem like a waste, but it does save time in the long run. Use the mapping run to take a quick walk around your house and look for dangling shoelaces, wired headphones or any long strings or fringes that will trip up the smartest robot vacuum. 

Many robots, like the Roborock S6 MaxV, have advanced object-detection abilities that will let them identify obstacles if you live in a house with pets or kids that might, er, leave unpleasant surprises on the floor. The more you and your personal robot vacuum get to know each other, the better.

And turn on your lights. Your robot probably has optical sensors, which require ambient light to operate. If you find that your vacuum is getting stuck a lot, don't schedule your cleanings at night. Try 9 am, just after you leave for work (unless you're working from home). If you have a dog, cleaning right after you leave will also give your pup less time to have an accident on the floor. If you're still having navigational issues, try wiping off the optical sensors with a soft cloth.

Empty the Bin

Yes, unfortunately, a robot that routinely digs into the yuckiest corners of your house will need a little routine maintenance. More than a few people have complained to me that their robot vacuum doesn't work and just drags dirt around. If you find that yours is doing this, then your robot probably needs some routine maintenance. 

A robot vacuum’s dust bin is pretty small. Most robot vacuums have a bin size of around 0.6 liters. The dust bin on my Dyson ball vacuum is twice that, and I still need to empty it from room to room. I have to note here that iRobot is still the only manufacturer that makes a self-emptying vacuum with a bin sensor, so the robot knows to empty itself when it's full. 

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Other common problems can quickly be solved by wiping off the optical sensors with a soft cloth, unclogging the vacuum chute when Legos have gotten stuck inside, and cutting off long hair that has ensnarled the roller or side brushes. Many robot vacuums now come with tiny tools embedded inside the body that have a small blade and brush, which helps tremendously. 

It's important to note here that these are all problems that have befallen my handheld push vacuum, as well. I have yet to come across a robot vacuum problem that could not be solved with a few minutes of routine maintenance (well, and the occasional factory reset). 

Divide and Conquer

Ideally, you'd automate your robot vacuum's cleaning cycles, not give it another thought, and come home to a clean house every day thereafter. But as helpful as robot vacuums are, they cannot pick up your kid's 1000-piece puzzle set for you or put away the dirty laundry that you've left in a pile on the floor.

Some friends have told me they appreciate regular reminders to pick up after themselves. Since I am lazier, however, I've developed a few different strategies to help my robot vacuum help me keep up. Most smarter robot vacuums now save a map of your house and divide it room by room. I now clean one room at a time, then click on the map—for example, I clean the kitchen after dinner, then clean my kid's playroom during the day.

I have also created what I call “throw zones.” If you don’t have time to put everything away every time you run your robot vacuum, you can designate an area to toss the toy necklaces and blankies before you leave the house. Most robot vacuums will let you draw a virtual boundary line in the app. For dumber ones, companies usually sell adhesive magnetic boundary strips you can stick on the floor, or just create a physical barrier around the areas in your house you want to cordon off.

Before the cleaning run starts, toss every iffy household item behind the boundary. You can then sort out everything that has landed in your own personal Bermuda Triangle, but you can get to that later.

With two kids, a dog, and a full-time job, robot vacuums are one of the few devices that help keep my house in a semi-presentable condition. And unlike a push vacuum, it regularly cleans places I might otherwise overlook, like under the couch, beds, and oven. Soon, you too may find your robot vacuum has also become your best friend. At the very least, it still makes a fine tool for rolling the littlest of your cute critters around the living room.


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